“How will the timber frame be supported until the brickwork is up?” Unbelievably this question recently came from a professional practitioner in a firm of architects and engineers. Despite knowing that the project was an engineered timber structure for a block of flats, the mindset that structures have to be masonry, was clearly evident.

It says a lot about how timber is perceived and the task that still remains to correct this. Commodified in relatively recent years as a cheap material, timber has been ignored by engineers and educators in favour of steel and reinforced concrete to the extent that, today, very little is taught to students of architecture, building and engineering about the wonderful qualities of wood. Fortunately this is changing.

As the growth of timber frame accelerates, more entrants are being lured by the hope of high returns for simple input. The need to maintain, if not increase, margins is important.

Building contracting has become highly commodified. In part this has led to the death of most apprenticeships and the stream of skilled craftsmen working their way through to supervision, site management and construction management. Craft experienced supervision at all levels is also badly needed. All too often, sub-contract timber frame erectors, without proper instruction in the structural requirements of buildings, are now telling site managers whether their work is acceptable.

This is worrying but, with contracting margins of 1.5-2%, builders have no room to train either tradesmen or management properly. Nor do they have anything to plough back into R&D. Unless it guards – and improves – its margins very carefully, the timber frame sector could suffer the same fate.

Skills shortage

There are numerous CAD-type packages available to help design timber structures quickly and easily. However, there are not many people well versed in using them and with sufficient construction knowledge to know what they are doing. Nor are there sufficient properly trained and adequately skilled erectors to put up anything but the most basic of structures.

So new entrants who think timber frame is an easy target might want to think again. If they are to deliver what clients want, when they want it, they have to address the technical skills issue.

There’s a lot going on in product development: timber floors with the ‘feel’ of concrete; insulation alternatives from sheep’s wool to hemp; lightweight claddings to replace brick skins; and “massive wood’” walls, floors and roofs are just the tip of the iceberg.

Climate change and environmental sustainability issues will be major change drivers in the near- to medium-term future. But so too will health and safety, lean construction, lean manufacture, and the introduction of Eurocodes. Overarching these will be the Construction Design & Management (CDM) regulations, which will charge any design-oriented person with responsibility for safety at all stages of the build process, including subsequent maintenance and demolition.


Composites are likely to play a greater role. Light gauge steel and timber-based board joist frames are able to span greater widths at lower costs. Another might be pultruded timber fibre/glass sections for external frames.

The sector may also face competition from new lightweight products that might substitute, or complement, “massive wood” components. A combined preservative and fire protection treatment could also be on the cards.

This all spells change for timber merchants too. Expect to see greater specialisation, like modified timber products, such as acetylisation and thermal modifications which change the cell structure of the fibre. Expect also to see companies enter into partnering agreements with specialist timber frame manufacturers. As timber frame manufacturers improve their processes and refine their designs, logistics will become increasingly important, with just-in-time deliveries, possibly of pre-prepared timbers, to assembly lines becoming the order of the day.

But to respond to these emerging needs, merchants will need to select well-educated recruits, put them through rigorous training and give them a good management education to ensure the firm can fulfil the manufacturers’ demands.

On all fronts then, the future of the UK timber trade and the timber frame sector are confronted by the need for more and better education. And to afford this demands good profits.